Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Original Series, Season 2: Bread and Circuses

The Original Series, Season 2
"Bread and Circuses"
Airdate: March 15, 1968
44 of 80 produced
54 of 80 released
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The Enterprise discovers the wreckage of the SS Beagle, a merchant ship missing for six years. Hoping to find survivors on the nearby planet, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down. On this planet they discover a society at a 20th century Earth-level technology, but ancient Roman mores. Vicious gladiator games have the same life and death stakes, but take place on a sound stage, not the Colosseum. They find help from a group of runaway slaves seeking to change their society's violent ways. Eventually captured by the police, they are taken to the Proconsul who demands Kirk beam down the crew of the Enterprise to fight in his gladiatorial games. Will Kirk escape the games alive?

I'm a Doctor, not a Gladiator!


Kevin: Once again, we go down the road of parallel Earth development. I would have to say that this might be the best one that they did. It lacks the absurd overly detailed parallels like in The Omega Glory. This at least posits a science-fiction-like question. What would happen if Rome never fell? I liked a few of the touches. The juxtaposition of the gladiator fight on the sound stage with boom cameras and production staff or the police officers with guns and short swords was nice. Televising the games makes perfect sense. Overall, though, they didn't take it far enough. It would have been fun to see how the Roman civil and political structure made the transition through the Industrial Revolution.

Matthew: My thinking is similar - if I had seen this episode in isolation from the other "Parallel Earth" shows, I would be thinking that there were some flaws, but overall the construction was pretty entertaining. The fantastically slim chance of everyone speaking English? Hodgkins Law of Parallel Planetary Development?  These ideas are cheap, perhaps, but at least they tried to explain these long shots. Omega Glory does not. These conceptual flaws aside, it is fun to imagine a Roman Empire that lasts through the ages - several pretty good sci-fi authors have done the same. So it's obviously a good enough story hook to hang your hat on.

Kevin: The drama suffered a little because the central conflict didn't quite make sense. Why would Kirk beam down members of the crew, even under a death threat? There is some talk about the Federation's non-interference policy, but even bringing them down to fight in the games would constitute interference, right? That leaves us with the threat to the main three, and having it so focused on McCoy was good. He is certainly the most vulnerable to a straight up physical assault, but overall it never really grabbed me.

Matthew: The things that didn't make sense to me were four: 1. Why was Merik the first citizen at all? It seemed like the proconsul had all the power, and frequently belittled him. What utility was served by the arrangement either for the proconsul or for Merik? Did he dazzle them with technology? Some sort of explanation, even a weak one, would've been nice. 2. Kirk doing it with the slave Drusila was extremely morally questionable. I'm not saying she wasn't hot, and I'm not saying it wouldn't be tempting. But this woman is a slave. Banging her is using a sentient being as a means to your own pleasure, without respecting her as an 'end in her self.' This might be the first time that Kirk can justifiably be accused of womanizing or lechery. Even if some of his other interludes can be thought of as means to some greater end, this one cannot. No higher purpose was served by Kirk dipping his wick into that well. 3. Why couldn't they have beamed up when they were not in plain view? The ultimate resolution of the episode was doing this anyway, but in plain view of several guards who presumably did not know about alien space visitors. How does that not violate the prime directive? It would be better if they didn't stress how careful they were about PD issues in dialogue... but they did. 4. If any episode were screaming for a redshirt, this is the one. Why did K/S/M beam down alone? Not even one security person could have accompanied them, to his eventual bloody end in the arena? It would have actually raised the stakes, this time.

Kevin: The fight scene with Spock and McCoy was pretty interesting. Spock coming to McCoy's rescue and Kirk sitting by helpless was pretty effective, but overall there wasn't a lot of there there. Merik never really came off the screen. Maybe as a civilian captain, his downfall is less compelling. And, like Omega Glory's paean to patriotism, the last second addition of a paean to Christianity felt really tacked on and silly. It strains credulity that Christianity would develop identically, right down to naming and iconography.

Matthew: I have always hated the Christianity reference at the end of this episode. I agree that it strained credulity (though no more than a parallel Roman Empire) and that it was inappropriate in the secular humanist context of the show. But the thought occurred after this particular viewing to me that it could actually be read much more subversively. There is no need to see this as an implication that there is a divine Christ on this world as well as on Earth. Instead, it can be read as an indication that historical socio-political forces, if close enough to those on Earth, would result in the rise of messianic political-religious figures like Christ, no matter whether there were some divine influence or not. The characters do stress that that the "philosophy of brotherhood" is a natural offshoot of a society that is so riven by slavery.

Kevin: Having mentioned Omega Glory, I want to say that I think there is a stellar, top 10 episode between the two. If you took Omega Glory's Ron Tracey and cautionary MAD tale and combined it with the more developed and more interesting riff on the parallel Earth development of Rome in Bread and Circuses, you could have a bang up episode. Sadly, both episodes can be summed up in the same way. Some neat-o action and character moments that get impaled by the absurd conceit of the setup.

Matthew: It wasn't terribly central to the story, in the way it was to Omega Glory, but there is some interesting dialogue about my pet theme. Merik is another failed captain (he was drummed out of the academy in his fifth year for failing a "psycho-simulator" test), and he says to the proconsul that Kirk comes from a "starship, a very special ship and crew," unlike his own spaceship, the SS Beagle. Merik is a member of the Merchant Service, apparently an appendage to Starfleet that hauls goods and performs rudimentary surveys. His ship is only a Spaceship, not a Starship, which is a much more special assemblage of both technology and people. I like this dialogue a lot because it underscores what a leap forward the Starship is, both technologically and politically, for the Federation.


Kevin: The leads do a perfectly serviceable job on this one. Like I said, the fight scenes had a nice few moments between the main three. The scenes aboard the Enterprise were among the best in the episode as well. It's always nice seeing the crew be competent and useful on their own. It's also enjoyable watching them come to the correct solution on their own.

Matthew: Spock and McCoy get a juicy scene together, in which McCoy skewers Spock with insights about his half-breed nature and insecurities. It is acted quite well by both parties. They also threaded a fine balance between peril and humor in their fight scene.

Kevin: Like I said before, Merik never really grabbed my attention, but Claudius Marcus was deliciously decadent, like Hedonismbot from Futurama. Flavius was OK, not great, but OK.

Matthew: I agree, the supporting cast was pretty good, with the possible exception of Merik.

Production Values

Kevin: The sets were above average here. The canyon was nice, even the caves were good. I loved the sound stage with fighting arena. It was visually interesting, and I loved seeing the 1960s television cameras circling. I don't know if they built a new set or just filmed their own sound stage, but it had detail and veracity, and it served the episode well. It was the one place with the exploration of a modern Rome really paid off.

Matthew: I was a little disappointed by the TV set. If I were a citizen tuning in for entertainment, I think I would find it a little cheap. What if someone got thrown into the backdrop, something I have to think would occur frequently? How do they clean up blood? I admit that TOS probably doesn't have the budget to realistically portray an arena that would satisfy these questions. Oh wait, they do... The Gamesters of Triskelion set could have easily been reused with a Roman Crest painted on the floor. Oh well. In general, this was another one of those "big idea, small execution" shows. They showed some stock footage of the real Rome, but absolutely no shots of extras portraying the residents of this city. I did, however, like the magazine mock-ups they made.


Kevin: Here we go again. I had the same problem with Omega Glory, and I'm going to resolve it the same way. I am giving this episode a 3. While it is arguably a better example of the parallel Earth idea, it's still not a good idea. A few acting and staging highlights kept from seriously considering a 2, but nor did it get me to consider giving it a 4.

Matthew: Viewed in a vacuum, it's hard to claim that the viewer is left un-entertained by this episode. It's got some glaring flaws of logic and conceit. But it never drags, there are some good character moments, and parts of the concept are intriguing. I wasn't as impressed by the production values, but the acting more than ameliorates the flaws in story and design, brining this to a solid 3. That brings our total to a 6 overall.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with Matthew that the ending was a serious groaner, and also a bit of a waste. Even if Uhura hadn't delivered the line like she was in a Church Pageant, it sold way too much as "SEE? God is everywhere!" when with some subtle tweaking it might have made an interesting argument that Early Christianity's extreme pacifism is a natural/inevitable/repeating human response to Roman hyper-militarism. A pendulum swing that had to happen eventually.

    Still, I'll always love this episode for the greatest threat ever: you better cooperate, or we'll do a special episode on you!